Soulpepper takes Animal Farm in a Trumpian direction

The modern twists in this adaptation of George Orwell's allegorical novella never feel forced or heavy-handed

ANIMAL FARM by George Orwell, adapted by Anthony MacMahon (Soulpepper). At the Young Centre (50 Tank House). Runs to April 7. $35-$95. 416-866-8666. See listing. Rating: NNNN

George Orwell’s Animal Farm, first published in 1945, is as relevant today as it was when the English novelist was riffing off Stalin’s tyranny and Trotsky’s idealism. Soulpepper’s adaptation adds a 21st-century polish, which you’d expect following the rise of Donald Trump and his brand of nationalism. Thankfully, this production’s modern twists never feel forced or heavy-handed.

For those who skipped Grade 10 English class, the story goes like this: farm animals take over the acreage from the human farmer and fill the power vacuum by installing the pig Napoleon (Rick Roberts) as their leader. Once the pigs are able to make decisions for the animals, resentment and rebellion spread across the farm, inspiring the hens to strike and refuse to lay eggs. The mantra of “All animals are equal” is soon replaced by “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

Beyond buoying the novella’s themes of abusing language to justify abhorrent behaviour and the dangers of a naïve working class, this adaptation is supported by a talented cast who seamlessly slip into the skins of their respective animals. Oliver Dennis is magnificent as the clueless, hard-working horse Boxer while Roberts’s ferocity as Napoleon brings the right amount of menace to the corrupt leader. Flashes of humour break up the political allegory, most often from the beaks of the hens Mercy (Raquel Duffy) and Poophead (Jennifer Villaverde).

Some of the timely jokes fall flat, such as iPhone references and Fox News caricatures. The end could have been less rushed and would have benefitted from deeper context, especially for those who read the book in grade school and have forgotten the ringing note of the final chapter.

Ken MacKenzie’s costume and set design evokes the farm’s personality, most notably through masks and wardrobes that take over the human actors so completely. Director Ravi Jain keeps the pace moving swiftly, especially in the second half when tensions heighten between the two animal camps.

Animal Farm warns us to hold our leaders accountable for decisions that only benefit them and their cronies instead of their constituents. The Soulpepper production, accented with its modern flourishes, stays true to this cautionary tale that says, “Be skeptical of the pig with all the answers.”

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